CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
* * * * *
Keep away !
from people who try to belittle your ambitions!
Small people always do that,
but the really great make you feel
that you, too, can become great!
By: Mark Twain
* * * * * *
R ick Smolan (age forty-two) was sitting in a bar in Bangkok in 1979 when he got the idea for an unusual book about Australia. It would be composed of pictures that well-known photographers would shoot during a twenty-four-hour period, and later, collectively, the photographers themselves would decide which pictures were finally to be used. The project would be by photographers and for photographers.
This idea became A Day in the Life of Australia, and the project led to a series of Day in the Life books about other places, including Ireland, Japan, Hawaii, China, the U.S.S.R., and America. In total, four million copies of the Day in the Life books have been sold to date. Previously, a coffee-table book that sold more than 15,000 copies was considered a runaway best-seller. In his next chapter Smolan explains how he successfully challenged the status-quo mentality of the photojournalism industry, but his interview is applicable to anyone who’s been told that their projects are doomed.
S MOLAN IS CURRENTLY RUNNING A NEW COMPANY
CALLED “AGAINST ALL ODDS PRODUCTIONS.”
I drove over to Smolan’s house in Mill Valley, California, for this interview, and we talked in his studio next door. It’s a nerd’s and photographer’s heaven with lots of computers, cameras, books, and photographs are scattered everywhere in hip disarray. (Got the picture?)
The phone rang every five minutes or so. His assistant, Denise, was working while we talked. She tried to ignore what we were saying—except when Rick cracked a joke. Then she laughed, and we knew we had an audience. Smolan is best when he has an audience.
A Day in the Life of a Photojournalist.
THE DAY IN THE LIFE SERIES WAS BORN OUT OF
A SENSE OF CAMARADERIE AMONG PHOTOJOURNALISTS
AND A SHARED SENSE OF FRUSTRATION WITH
HOW PHOTO-JOURNALISM WORKED.
* * * * * *
T here are about two hundred men and women in the whole world who are photojournalists. They are of all different nationalities, different racial groups, and different ages. The one thing they all have in common is a childlike curiosity about the world.
They’re born storytellers—except the way they tell their stories is not with words, but with pictures. In many ways they serve as the world’s eyes. These people tend to be loners by nature, anf most live in hotels eleven months out of the year. After a while — and I was one of these people for five or six years-----you start to realize the only family you have in the world is other photojournalists, because they show up where you show up. It’s the only continuity you have in your whole life.
One of the frustrations all these photojournalists share is the fact that they’re out there looking at the world, and somebody back in New York, who didn’t have the experience, looks through the photographer’s film and, more often than not, picks something that reminds him of something he’s seen before.
These editors look for a picture that feels familiar and comfortable—one they think their audience will understand instantly. Very often it’s a cliché. They don’t like pictures that ask questions. They like pictures that give answers. The irony is that often the most interesting pictures are the ones that are slightly enigmatic—that are slightly open to interpretation.
All of us would sit around the bars complaining about the editors we worked for. We’d sweat blood and bullets and put our lives on the line, and then we’d pick up the newsmagazine a week later, and it would have this litttle, stupid picture which meant nothing to anybody.
Because of this I came up with an idea to invite my heroes and my peers and some of the new, young photographers to come to Australia to take some extraordinary pictures of an ordinary day.
Persisting Against Conventional Wisdom
SMOLAN’S SUCCESS WITH THE DAY IN THE LIFE
SERIES ILLUSTRATES WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN YOU
BUCK THE SYSTEM AND DO WHAT YOU THINK IS RIGHT.
* * * * * * * *
T he way most publishers would do a book like this is to make up a list of things that have to be in the book — kangaroos, the Opera House, wallabies, and guys wearing hats with corks bobbing off them —and then go out and send photographers to illustrate those things.
When I went out to publishers looking for someone to publish this Day in the Ljfe book, they basically laughed me out of their offices. The fact that I wanted to do it on a day when nothing happened, that I wanted to photograph ordinary people, that I didn’t want to include all the tourist attractions and all the things that had to be in a book about Australia, meant that it was a doomed idea from the beginning.
In addition, the fact that I wanted to hire a hundred photographers and fly them all to Australia, house them, feed them, transport them around, and get them cars, hotels, and film was such ridiculous overkill. The reaction they all had was, “Go buy stock pictures and call it A Day in the Life. Who really cares if you actually did it in one day? The public would never know—what would be the difference?”
I went out anyway and was basically turned down by everybody. They said nobody would be interested in a book of photographs of complete strangers, taken on a day when nothing happened in some godforsaken country like Australia. Out of sheer desperation, I went to private companies like Apple, Kodak, and Hertz, and asked if they would give me film or computers or hotel rooms or airfares. In return, I told them I’d give them a private edition of the book, which they could give away as Christmas gifts. Many of these companies had excess airplane seats or film or whatever. I convinced them to turn something that they already had and was basically valueless to them into something they could use.
I didn’t know anything about business at all. If I’d known more,
I wouldn’t have done it. My ignorance got me so far in a hole that I couldn’t back out. I owed too much money, and I’d gotten too many people involved. I would have gladly called it off if I could have crawled away and pretended I’d never started it, but there was no way to crawl back out of the hole.
All I could do was keep digging—hoping I would pop out the other side.
SMOLAN’S EXPERIENCE SHOWS
THAT SOMETIMES, TO QUOTE
THE POET THOMAS GRAY,
IGNORANCE IS BLISS.
* * * *
S OMETIMES YOU’RE PROTECTED BY YOUR IGNORANCE.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A RIGHT AND WRONG WAY TO DO ANYTHING. I think the more you become an expert in something, you almost limit other ways of doing it. You probably get very good at one way of doing it, but you start assuming that’s the only way to do it. Your idea is not a good one if everybody says, “What a great idea!” When everyone is telling you this is going to be the next big thing, I always figure you should head in the opposite direction. The opportunities for a big win are, by definition, in the place most other people are not looking.
Also—maybe it’s a way of rationalizing rejection, but if it was • obvious, somebody else would be doing it. So you have to start figuring out how to trust that little voice inside of you that tells you when something’s a good idea despite the fact that the whole world is telling you it’s not.
Ninety percent of it is just being stubborn and obstinate and pig-headed. My father used to accuse me of having tunnel vision when I was a kid. When I was focused on something, you could talk to me or hit me, and I wouldn’t notice. I would be totally fixated on something, and the rest of the world would disappear.
SMOLAN ATTRIBUTES MUCH OF TH E SUCCESS
OF THE DAY IN THE LIFE BOOKS TO THE
SPONTANEOUS QUALITY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS.
EMPOWERING PHOTOGRAPHERS TO TAKE THE
SHOTS THEY WANTED WAS ONE OF THE VERY
BEST DECISIONS HE MADE.
* * * * * * *
M y idea was to make up assignments for the photographers, make sure they were geographically spread out, make sure the assignments didn’t overlap too much, and then say, “If you don’t like what we’ve set up for you, if you think it is boring and not a good assignment, then come up with your own ideas. You’re the person on the spot. If you’re staying with a family and they say their six-year-old daughter is doing an elementary-school play tomorrow night, and you think that’s more interesting than going to the coal mine we assigned you to, great.
Probably 50 percent of the pictures in the book come from a photographer’s own initiative and spontaneity. That’s why the books are fun: they have that sense of discovery instead of illustration. So much of journalism and publishing today is illustrating someone else’s idea.
As a photographer, I found, at least toward the end of my career, there was this unspoken rule that said, “If you come back without pictures, it’s your fault, and we won’t hire you again, so you make it happen. We don’t want to know how you made it happen. Just don’t come back without something we can use.” That means you’ re supposed to illustrate, and it got to be very frustrating.
Getting Back to What You Love
IN 1986 SMOLAN SOLD THE DAY IN THE LIFE
SERIES TO COLLINS PUBLISHERS BECAUSE IT
HAD BECOME A SYSTEMATIZED BUSINESS THAT
TOOK SMOLAN AWAY FROM THE THINGS
HE LOVED TO DO.
* * * * *
I watched what was an antiestablishment, antipublishing, damn-the -old publishers-we’re-gonna-go- out-there-and-do-this-book -anyway-if-there’s-no - market-if-there’s-no-money-we-don’t-care-it’s-not-a-business-it’s -just-going-to- be-a-book-by-photographers-for- photographers venture turn into an institution that now takes six months of planning to give cameras to schoolchildren.
We had eighteen people, and I spent all of my time resolving battles between some people, or calming people down, or firing people, or hiring them, or dealing with all the mechanisms of interpersonal relations instead of working on what I love: photographs and books.
I was delegating all of the things I loved. I wasn’t taking pictures. I wasn’t editing pictures. I wasn’t working with designers. I was hiring people to do all those real things so I could make more money . There’s a simplicity to life when you’re doing the creative side of it instead of managing the creative side.
It’s like looking at an empty field of tall grass or the ground after its first snowfall. No one’s walked across it, and you’re the first. You walk across it, and you don’t fall into any potholes or break your leg. It’s very hard for anyone else, or even you, not to take that same path again, because you know it’s safe, and it got you there.
BEING A LONER AND A THINKER
PARTIALLY EXPLAINS SMOLAN’S
DESIRE TO GET BACK TO A MUCH
SMALLER ORGANIZATION, AND IT
EVEN EXPLAINS HIS ATTRACTION
* * * * *
W hen I was a kid, I was very shy. I didn’t know how to get along with people, so I spent most of my time by myself. My hobbies were amateur radio, where I’d sit in the basement and talk to people by Morse code; and also photography, wher e I could watch people without having to actually engage them.
I always felt that people were given a tool to relate with other people when they were born, and that tool had been left out of my kit. I figured if I watched people enough, I’d figure it out.
I’m actually quite social now, but I like my own thoughts. I like spending days by myself walking and thinking. There’s a rhythm and a momentum and a focus and a concentration that I don’t have when I’m around people too much.
That’s a common theme with a lot of people I’ve met who are risk-takers. At a certain point either you don’t trust people or you’ve spoken to yourself so often that there are several of you who converse. They become your counsel, father figure, and older brother.
Conquering Your Fears
AS HE LOOKS BACK, SMOLAN RECOGNIZES
THAT CONQUERING THE THINGS THAT SCARED
HIM MADE HIM STRONG
* * * * * * *
M AKE IT AS DIFFICULT AS YOU CAN FOR YOURSELF.
The very thing that you are the most terrified of is where your power is. If it’s easy, you didn’t earn it. Don’t think: I can never write a book, I can never make a movie, I can never ski down that mountain. Head toward the terror, not away from it.
It’s not like I know this now and do it automatically. It’s one of those lessons you go through your whole life, remembering over and over and over again and then relearning: do the opposite of what your instincts say. One of the voices inside is a frightened little kid who says, “Mommy, Mommy, take care of me.”
There’s still a little kid inside me who gets awkward and embarrassed. There’s also a practical voice—that I hate—reminding me that life’s getting shorter and that says, “If I spend the month doing this, I’m not spending the month doing these twenty other things.”
I ignore it and try to do the opposite. It’s like jumping off a cliff and trying to figure out how you’re going to build your parachute on the way down. The trouble is, until you jump off the cliff, you don’t have the motivation to figure it out. You never end up getting the confidence in yourself if all you do are safe, predictable, and secure things.
Copyright @ 1995. (Pgs. 19-26)
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